December 8, 2021
arthritis in dogs

Signs of Arthritis in Dogs

What are signs of arthritis in dogs?

Let us talk about signs of arthritis in dogs. Arthritis means inflammation of a joint and this can be caused by several different mechanisms. The joint can be subdivided into several different components, The bones covered in articular cartilage; the synovial membranes which join the surfaces together, and the synovial fluid which provides the lubrication and a lot of the nutrients for the joints. Peripheral to these structures are the ligaments, tendons, and muscles which support and mobilize the joints.

What are the types of arthritis in dogs?

Arthritis can be subdivided into two principal categories,

  • Degenerative arthritis
  • Inflammatory arthritis 

This article will concentrate principally on degenerative arthritis called osteoarthritis as this is by far and away from the most common manifestation of arthritis in the dog.

What is Osteoarthritis in dogs?

Osteoarthritis is a non-inflammatory, often inherent condition of movable joints that result in changes to the cartilage surfaces and their surrounding tissues with cartilage erosion and new depositions of bone to develop changed and irregular surfaces leading to joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and limitation in movement with deterioration with age.

arthritis in dogs

How does osteoarthritis in dogs occur?

There is little doubt that certain dog breeds have an inherited predisposition to osteoarthritis. This is known as primary osteoarthritis and conditions such as hip dysplasia in the labrador-retriever would be a good example. 

Secondary osteoarthritis is more common and arises from some insult of the joint such as the trauma of a road traffic accident, abnormal stresses on the joint surfaces, or infection in a joint.

What are the signs of arthritis in dogs and how do you diagnose it?

If a single joint has been damaged, lameness is shown by the dog with a nodding action of the head or the ’dropping off a hip’. Where multiple joints are involved, as is often the case, signs may be less obvious as the dog takes on a compensatory gait, balancing out the limbs with slower movement, reduced propulsion, and a less active state. Many pets show stiffness after rest and difficulty in rising with it improving with gentle movement.

A classic example is a dog with hip arthritis to show reluctance to jump into the car. Onset may be acute, but more often is slow and subtle with owners believing that their pet is ‘just getting old’. If your dog has started to slow up recently, it probably has arthritis. Dogs rarely show acute pain (they rarely cry out) but increased nervousness, aggression, and depression may all be related to chronic pain.

Your veterinarian will help to diagnose the condition and also eliminate other causes of joint disease. Radiographs may be necessary as may analysis of joint fluid (the latter to largely eliminate other reasons for joint damage).

What is Treatment for Arthritis in Dogs?

The secret of successful treatment is early diagnosis and careful management. Treatment can be divided into three areas:

  • Weight control. Fat dogs have to carry the extra weight!
  • Exercise regulation. Several shorter walks on smooth, yet non-concussive surfaces are better than long route marches on steep and rough hillsides!
  • Surgical. Only suitable for specific cases where other solutions have proven ineffective. A good example would be hip replacement therapy for a dog with severe hip dysplasia.
  • Use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). The use of carprofen (Rimadyl) and meloxicam (Metacam) are market leaders for efficacy and patient acceptability. Both drugs tend to be well-tolerated, provide excellent pain relief, and reduce joint inflammation. Both occasionally can cause stomach upsets and should be discontinued if vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of appetite occur. They should be used under very careful veterinary supervision if there is any suggestion of kidney, liver, heart disease, or gastrointestinal ulceration. Drug interactions can occur (e.g. with steroids). Given short term by injection but more normally by the oral route, with food.
  • Polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (PSGAGs) have anti-inflammatory activity and help modulate cartilage and synovial membrane metabolism. Usually given as weekly injections for a month and then every few months.
  • Steroids can be used to suppress inflammatory changes on the joint surface but should only be used where there is inflammatory erosive osteoarthritis present.
arthritis in dogs

What is traumatic arthritis in dogs?

This is a generalized term for changes to a joint resulting from either a single or repetitive trauma to that joint. Examples being a road traffic accident, a torn cruciate ligament in the knee, or for repetitive trauma, a dog that overextends his back when running resulting in spinal arthritis and signs of arthritis in dogs are quite severe.

Acute trauma to a joint may manifest as a sudden onset lameness with swelling, heat, and pain and warrants early veterinary attention. It is important to differentiate this type of acute joint pain from other conditions such as septic or infected arthritis. Early assessment and treatment can reduce the long term damage to the joint. In this condition, there is a disruption of the cartilage, bone, synovial membranes, and ligaments supporting the joint. Inflammatory changes lead to increased synovial (joint) fluid production with swelling and associated discomfort.

Disruptive, traumatic, acute conditions with bone damage, dislocation, and ligament rupture may require surgical intervention but only after stabilization of firstly the patient and secondly the joint itself. Several weeks of resting of the joint is important with possible immobilization, depending on the condition that may be necessary, including and followed by the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs (NSAIDs). Prognosis has to be guarded in many conditions and a degree of osteoarthritis will develop in many cases.

Non-disruptive, traumatic, acute, conditions will not require surgery. Rapid treatment with immobilization/rest and the use of NSAIDs will provide good results in many cases although in severe cases osteoarthritis will result.

What is Infective arthritis in dogs?

Depending on the source of infection and the organism causing the infection, this condition can manifest as either acute lameness or a grumbling sore joint. Prompt and efficient treatment is required as misdiagnosis or the wrong treatment can lead to permanent incapacitation, with joint degradation and sometimes, generalized disease.

Infection of the joint can be by two routes:

  • Direct penetration of the joint; a bite, thorn, or road accident.
  • Spread via the blood supply.

The organisms involved are varied and depend on the route of infection. Common organisms are B-haemolytic streptococci, Staphylococci, hemolytic E.coli, Erysipelothrix, Corynebacterium, and Lyme’s disease (Borrelia burgdorferi). Brucella Canis used to be a problem but is rare nowadays.

Interestingly, larger breeds and male dogs appear to be more commonly affected and present with varying degrees of lameness with hot, swollen joints or joints with pain on palpation or manipulation. There may be swelling of the limb and generalized signs such as raised temperature and enlarged lymph nodes and even multi-organ failure.

Radiographs should be taken, as much as to rule out other causes of joint damage as to provide a diagnosis and a sterile sample of joint fluid should be taken for bacterial culture, antibiotic sensitivity, and microscopic examination. Blood hematology can sometimes be useful with more generalized disease and specific testing for conditions such as Lyme’s disease.

Treatment with antibiotics specific to the bacterial organism over several weeks is required in all cases. In severe cases, joint drainage and lavage, sometimes over a considerable period of time are required. Pain and anti-inflammatory relief may be required using NSAIDs. signs of arthritis in dogs takes several weeks to go.

What is Immune-mediated Arthritis is dogs?

A small and important group of diseases causing inflammatory arthritis. Normally several joints (they are usually polyarthritic diseases) are involved with marked inflammation of the synovial membranes, joint swelling, often with pain, and sometimes temperature rise. We quite often find that these cases respond poorly to the use of drugs used for other forms of arthritis such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory/ analgesic drugs (NSAIDs). The pathology of these diseases is the production of ‘immune complexes’, produced, depending on disease type, either locally in the joint or systemically. The underlying cause of these diseases is unknown.

Diagnosis can be difficult, partly due to the rarity of some of the disease forms. Certain diseases have specific tests to help identify them but a general test that can help direct your vet towards a diagnosis is a joint fluid sample that is negative for bacterial and fungal culture, joint fluid analysis reveals a high white blood cell count with a particularly high count of a white blood cell called neutrophils and negative evidence for Lyme’s disease and Leishmaniasis.

What are types of Immune-mediated Arthritis in dogs?

Rheumatoid arthritis in dogs

Relatively rare and of unknown origin although canine distemper antigens have been linked to this disease. Any breed, usually adult dogs are affected with single or multi-joint lameness varying from stiffness to acute pain. Occasionally a fever, lethargy, and inappetence accompany the joint disease which may have an asymmetric appearance. The joints are swollen and painful with manipulation. Damage and erosion of the cartilage and bone surface occur with changes to the synovial membranes. The test for Rheumatoid arthritis is a blood test for auto-antibodies known as ‘rheumatoid factor’. There are several ways to test for the condition such as ELISA, radioimmunoassay, and the Rose-Waaler test. These tests are not always accurate. Treatment is varied. NSAIDs are effective in mild cases. Severe cases may require immunosuppression with steroids and other cytotoxic agents. Gold injections have proven quite effective.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

As the name suggests this condition affects the whole body and can take on many different manifestations. This article will only touch on this condition but can be associated with autoimmune hemolytic anemia, kidney disease, skin and gum eruptions, central nervous system disease, other blood disorders as well as polyarthritis (multiple joint diseases). Again, the causative agents are unknown but there is evidence of an unknown, underlying viral infection that stimulates an abnormal ‘whole body’ response with immune complex hypersensitivity developing against a wide range of body cells and tissues.

Clinically the polyarthritic form shows asymmetrical multi-joint lameness usually with temperature rise, lymph node enlargement, loss of appetite, mobility and muscle pain, and wastage. Radiographs show little evidence of bone change. Blood testing for antinuclear antibodies (ANA test) if positive with clinical symptoms is a useful indicator of disease. Prognosis with treatment is always guarded, the disease usually being progressive leading to organ failure. Corticosteroids in combination with other cytotoxic drugs such as azathioprine and cyclophosphamide are often used to relieve signs of arthritis in dogs.

Polyarthritis/Polymyositis syndrome

Often seen in spaniels, showing stiffness and poor exercise tolerance with a crouched posture. The joints may be swollen and painful but a principal feature is contracture and atrophy of muscles leading to shortening of joint movement. This may include the angle of the jaw making eating difficult. Temperature rise and pain are evident. Treatment is as for the other immune-based arthritides and prognosis is poor.

Polyarthritis/Meningitis syndrome 

Boxers, Weimaraners, Pointers, Akitas, and Bernese Mountain dogs have all been diagnosed with this condition that shows as stiffness, temperature rise, painful necks, symmetrical arthritis, and sometimes nervous signs. Tests for other immune-based arthritides are negative but fluid drawn from the spine show marked inflammatory (but not infected) changes. Corticosteroid treatment can be effective to relieve signs of arthritis in dogs.

Some other important articles:   

IMHA in Dogs

Diabetes in Dogs

Cushing’s disease in Dogs

Pyometra in Dogs

This information is NOT intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation for any of your pet’s diseases. Always consult your veterinarian for a diagnosis and treatment plan.


  • Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline by Larry P. Tilley, Francis W. K. Smith
  • Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice by Robert G. Sherding and Stephen J. Birchard
  • Emergency Procedures for the Small Animal Veterinarian by Signe J. Plunkett
  • Merck Veterinary Manual by  Susan Aiello
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  • Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care for Veterinary Technicians Third edition by Andrea M. Battaglia, LVT, Andrea M. Steele, MSc, RVT, VTS (ECC)

Dr Gurpal Chahal, DVM

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

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